She hails from a family of Baltimore firefighters, but Summer Britcher's life runs counter. She battles the ice.
One of the youngest members of the Olympic luge team, Britcher, 19, is competing in her first Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Opening ceremonies are Friday and come Monday she'll lay on her back and rattle her sled down a frozen track with 17 banked turns for nearly one mile at speeds exceeding 80 miles an hour. Sans brakes.
"It's terrifying, but I'm hooked," Britcher said. "I love it."
Her family will be in the stands egging her on, fingers crossed. Four years ago, a 21-year-old Georgian luger crashed and died during a training run at the 2010 Games in Canada.
"Sure I'm concerned," said Bill Britcher, her father and a captain in the Baltimore City Fire Department. "I took a run once at Lake Placid (N.Y.) and it was so rough and shaky that when I reached the bottom, I felt like my head was going to fall off of my neck.
"It's a dangerous sport, but Summer has to live her life. At this point, I'd worry more if she were a firefighter."
Born in Baltimore, Summer Britcher soon moved with her family to Glen Rock, Pa. Two uncles, Brian Britcher and John Britcher, are lieutenants in the BCFD and her grandfather, Francis Britcher, is a retired captain. In late December, flanked by family and friends, she received a hearty send-off at Engine 29 station house on Park Heights Avenue.
"I'm honored to represent them all," she said.
Also on hand was Kimmie Meissner, of Bel Air, onetime Olympian and world figure skating champion whose brother, Nate, is a firefighter there.
"Risk-taking must run in our families," said Meissner, 24. "Of course, firefighters have to be brave. What Summer does is really challenging, and skaters are always defying the laws of physics."
Meissner herself has never luged. Nor does she care to.
"I think I would, like, freak out," she said.
Being brave is in her blood, Britcher said. She knew it at age 11, on her first luge run at Ski Liberty in Fairfield, Pa. There, on a makeshift bunny track, she rode a plastic sled down a 700-foot chute at 25 miles an hour — and hurried back in line to do it again, five times in all.
"It seemed so cool to me," said Britcher, unaware that she had turned some heads. Watching intently was Gordy Sheer, marketing director for the U.S. Luge Association which built the track as a recruiting tool to attract youngsters with Olympic potential.
"Summer was an athletic kid whose determination stood out from the start," said Sheer, a silver medalist in the 1998 Winter Games. "Plus, she was big for her age. Luge is a momentum sport, and sliders must be long, lean and heavy. We also sized up her parents, to see what she might look like grown up."
Before Britcher left Ski Liberty, Sheer handed the startled girl his business card.
"Have your parents call me," he said.
They did. Next stop: a luge screening camp in Lake Placid, where the pre-teen spent a week flying down the chute and impressing USLA officials. Focus. Moxie. Stamina. Britcher had it all. Eight years later, she recalls her first run on a real track.
"There was the huge adrenaline rush that came from going fast, with a little danger mixed in to make it exhilarating," she said. "Hey, I was 11, I would try anything."
She made the USA Junior Development Team and, over time, "just clawed her way up the ladder from there," Sheer said.